Marc Sangnier – 70 years

I can’t let today pass without mentioning that it is the 70th anniversary of the death of Marc Sangnier, founder of the French movement, Le Sillon, and who died on Pentecost Sunday, 28 May, 1950.

Born into a bourgeois, liberal French family on 3 April, 1873, Sangnier completed all his early education from primary to undergraduate level at Stanislas College in Paris, which at that time had a special status as part of the French university system.

It’s clear that even from an early age Sangnier had exceptional leadership qualities and a remarkable charisma. He was eighteen when Pope Leo XIII issued his epoch-making 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, on the situation of the working classes and this clearly had a major impact on Sangnier.

Marc Sangnier as a student at the Ecole Polytechnique

Leo XIII’s forgotten encyclical

Nearly a year later on 16 February, 1892, the pope also issued another encyclical written in French, addressed to French Catholics. Entitled “Au milieu des sollicitudes,” it sought to tackle the longstanding issue of “the Church and State in France.”

Ever since the Revolution of 1789, many sections of the Catholic Church had dreamed of restoring the pre-Revolutionary monarchy and rebuilding the traditional concept of an alliance of throne and altar that had formed the bedrock of Church-state relations since the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.

Recognising that there was no turning back despite the many faults of the new regime, Leo XIII therefore called on French Catholics to accept the reality of the new and democratic Republican era in which they were living and abandon their “abstract” dreams of restoring the monarchy.

This concern for the workers and for building a genuine Christian-inspired democracy became the two poles around which Sangnier and his fellow students began to orient their action. Their first attempt took form in the shape of a student “study circle” known as “La Crypte” or The Crypt, taking its name from the school basement in which they met.

From the Crypt at Stanislas College to the Sillon movement

Sangnier recounted the origins of the group many times, including in this memorable article “The Crypt at Stanislas College.”

Soon after the students launched a magazine, Le Sillon (The Furrow), which originally had a fairly literary and philosophical bent but which Sangnier later transformed into a powerful tool for organising further study circles. By the early 20th century, these study circles were on the way to becoming a movement, which also took its name from the magazine.

Using a method of enquiry based on the work of the pioneering sociologist, Frédéric Le Play, and the virtue ethics of Léon Ollé-Laprune, they worked to promote a concept of democracy that they defined not as a or not merely as a parliamentary system but as the system of social organisation that tended to maximise the “consciousness and responsibility” of each person.

By 1903, the Sillon had already become known in Belgium, where Cardijn still a seminarian began to read its publications.

Cardijn’s discovery of the Sillon

To understand the impact of this discovery of the Sillon on the 20-year-old Cardijn, it suffices to read the extraordinary speech of welcome that he delivered when Sangnier visited Brussels in February 1921.

“It was 18 years ago that I first read the life, the speeches, the writings of Marc Sangnier and the history of the Sillon which he founded. Oh! You would need to measure the loving capacity of a virginal heart aged 20 years to understand the explosion of enthusiasm that such reading could inspire in the soul of a young seminarian!

“Later at Lille and Roubaix, we had the pleasure of participating in meetings of the study circles of the Sillon, where we saw those young people, students, workers and employees, loving each closer than brothers, assisting each other to develop their consciousness and to exercise their responsibilities….

“If I have recalled these details, it is because they are the story of so many unknown and obscure friends that you can count on in the many countries of the world. It is because it is the privilege and the reward of the sower of the ideal of life to be unable to limit the field that he seeds or to constrain the range of his fertile gesture.

“The winds of the air and the birds of the sky carry off this seed and deposit it sometimes far away, in a field where dew of God fertilises and multiplies it,” he concluded directly linking the establishment of the embryonic JOC with the Sillon.

Sangnier himself was clearly deeply moved by this tribute, writing on his return:

“Fr Cardyn’s words of welcome were filled with the purest spirit of the ‘great times of the Sillon’ (les beaux temps du Sillon). He acclaimed the work accomplished by our friends, unhesitatingly and gratefully linking his movement to our own.

“Truly, I felt that I was in a most intimate meeting of comrades… It filled my heart with solace and hope,” Sangnier wrote.

25 August 1910: The letter of Pius X

Tragically, the Sillon’s innovations were far from universally welcomed. Indeed, they attracted violent opprobium and opposition from many conservative and reactionary groups, including the Action Française.

By 1910 the situation had become critical leading Pope Pius X to intervene on 25 August with another letter addressed to the French bishops, Notre Charge Apostolique (Our Apostolic Duty). In this, he castigated the Sillon and its leaders for allegedly seeking to escape the Church’s hierarchical authority, abandoning Catholicism and even bringing socialism in their train. And he called on its leaders to resign and place the movement under episcopal direction.

In an act that created a deep impression at the time, Sangnier and his colleagues did in fact resign immediately. Sadly, however, the movement itself died as the bishops quickly showed that either they had no genuine interest in keeping the Sillon alive or were incapable of doing so.

Conscious and responsible

By this time, Cardijn himself had been sent to cool his heels teaching Latin at a rural minor seminary at Basse Wavre. He thus escaped the fallout of the bitter condemnation of the Sillon.

Even so, when in 1912 he finally obtained his post in the parish of Notre Dame at Laeken, he did not hesitate to surround himself with Sillon sympathisers, including Victoire Cappe and Fernand Tonnet. Fifteen years later when the French JOC launched in Paris and Lille, the pattern was repeated. Indeed, the founding chaplain of the French JOC, Georges Guérin, had himself been a member of the Sillon.

Cardijn himself never forgot his indebtedness to Marc Sangnier and his movement. Although he rarely referred explicitly to the Sillon, his writings are replete with references to the Sillon’s “consciousness and responsibility” definition of democracy. Moreover, Cardijn was far from alone in seeking to preserve and build on this heritage – right up to Vatican II.

Whereas Pius X and even Pius XI had been reluctant to endorse democracy, Pius XII backed it openly in his 1944 Christmas Message, Benignitas et humanitas, on “democracy and lasting peace.”

“The people lives by the fullness of life in the men that compose it,” the pope now wrote, echoing the Sillon definition of democracy, “each of whom – at his proper place and in his own way – is a person conscious of his own responsibility and of his own views.”

As if to make sure that no one missed the Sillon reference, Pius XII repeated the phrase “conscious of their own responsibility” two paragraphs later.

Similarly, in his first speech to Vatican II, Cardijn himself explicitly linked the see-judge-act to the development of consciousness and responsibility.

Interior freedom “exists in germ as a natural gift in every human creature,” but it “requires a long education which can be summarised in three words: see, judge and act,” he told Council Fathers.

“I have helped (young workers) to see, judge and act by themselves, by undertaking social and cultural action themselves, freely obeying authorities in order to become adult witnesses of Christ and the Gospel, conscious of being responsible for their sisters and brothers in the whole world,” he emphasised.

No surprise to find then that the Vatican II Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, insists in numerous paragraphs on the need for a “consciousness,” “awareness” or “sense of responsibility.”

Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, also recognised this in his book Sources of Renewal on the implementation of Vatican II, articulating his presentation of the “conciliar attitude” precisely around the terms “consciousness,” “responsibility” and also “participation.”

The Sillon and the JOC

This Sillon legacy not only had a huge impact on Cardijn and the pioneers of the JOC, it is also embedded in the history of the movement, which opened its first international congress with a huge rally at Heysel Stadium in Brussels on… 25 August 1935 – 25 years to the day after Pius X’s damning letter.

The IYCW again chose the 25 August as the date for its first International Council in Rome in 1957, a date that it continues to celebrate as its foundation day.

As I have written here and here, there are a number of indicators to show that this was a deliberate choice of date. In fact, when I first mentioned this apparent coincidence to Marguerite Fiévez, who had worked for the JOC in Belgium and internationally before becoming Cardijn’s secretary, her face lit up in realisation. Dates were very important to Cardijn, she told me.

Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier of Lyon was another contemporary who recognised Marc Sangnier’s role. At another huge rally at the Parc des Princes in Paris in 1937, Gerlier saw Sangnier in the stands.

Struck by what he later described as a sudden (spiritual) inspiration, he turned to him to say:

“Soyez heureux ce soir, Marc, car vous êtes l’un des grands ouvriers de la merveille que nous venons de voir.”

“Rejoice this evening, Marc, because you are one of the great workers of the marvel that we have just witnessed.”

Coming from Gerlier, who at the time of Pius X’s letter had been president of the Sillon’s rival, the French Catholic Youth Association (ACJF), it was a profound tribute.


But how better to conclude than with the testimony of Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, who was nuncio in Paris at the time of Sangnier’s death and would later call the Second Vatican Council in order to usher in a New Pentecost in the Church and the world?

“I heard Marc Sangnier speak for the first time in Rome around 1903 or 1904 at a meeting of Catholic youth,” Roncalli wrote to Marc’s widow, Renée Besançon. “The powerful charisma of his words and spirit enthralled me. The most vivid memory of my whole youth is of his personality and his political and social activity.

“His noble and frank humility in later accepting the admonition of the holy Pope Pius X – moreover, a very affectionate and well-meaning admonition – were the true measure of his greatness in my eyes.

“Souls as capable as his of remaining as faithful and respectful to the Gospel and to the Holy Church are made for the highest ascensions that ensure glory, namely the glory of Christ who knew how to exalt the humble, but also the glory of this world in the eyes of his contemporaries and for posterity for whom the example of Marc Sangnier will always be a lesson and an encouragement.”

Stefan Gigacz



Institut Marc Sangnier, Marc Sangnier (


Marc Sangnier, The Crypt at Stanislas College (

Gaston Lestrat, The first battles in Les beaux temps du Sillon (

Joseph Cardijn, Welcome to Marc Sangnier (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Joseph Cardijn, Religious liberty (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Stefan Gigacz, The Sillon and the YCW (

Stefan Gigacz, 25 August – A day of meaning (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, Henry du Roure, role model for the early YCW (Cardijn Research)
Stefan Gigacz, The communal soul of the Sillon and the JOC (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, The Crypt at Stanislas College – Friendship and facts (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, Two pioneers: Etienne Isabelle and Victoire Cappe (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, Part I, Chapter II, Lamennais, Le Sillon and the JOC in The Leaven in the Council (University of Divinity)

Stefan Gigacz, The Leaven in the Council (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library/Australian Cardijn Institute)